Sunday, August 1, 2010

Writing Anxiety: How Fear of Failure Can Affect Your Writing

In my youth I was a practitioner of the sport of fencing.  Due to the emphasis on the mental component of the game, the sport is often referred to as  “physical chess.”

A fencer must both be able to anticipate, plan, and make proper decisions while coordinating body movements at high speeds.

While fencers of all different skill levels commonly bout each other, it is often the courageous fencer who is better mentally prepared for their upcoming challenge.

Those who feel that they may not be able to beat their challenger typically have a defeatist mindset.

This is not unusual given that stressful situations often create feelings of nervousness, doubt, and worry; the components of the defeatist mindset.

The same is true of writing. Writing is an entirely mental game. Writers who feel that they may not be able to succeed typically suffer from the same feelings of nervousness, doubt, and worry.

Anxiety that occurs before a tournament can be distracting for a fencer. Instead of focusing on their fencing, they're worrying whether or not they might win. For a fencer who experiences this quite often, their chances of losing increases, continuing their cycle of self-doubt, inability to focus, and loss.

The same is true for writers. Worrying about how much better another writer is, or how well written someone else's manuscript is, instead of focusing on your own work increases the cycle of self-doubt, inability to focus, and procrastination.

Some people are not nervous all the time, but only in certain situations, such as competitions. This is called state anxiety.  It can be experienced as cognitive anxiety, which is when someone has negative thoughts, such as pessimistic self-talk. "I can't finish this [manuscript]" or "My agent will never accept this [manuscript]."

It can also be experienced as somatic anxiety, which occurs along with the physical symptoms (butterflies in the stomach, sweating despite lack of exercise, cotton mouth, and/or rapid heart rate) of anxiety.

Some people are anxious all the time. This is trait anxiety; a personality characteristic caused by in a wide variety of stressful situations.

What makes some competitors and writers nervous while others are not? While there are many factors that can trigger state anxiety, a recent study focused on the one particular form of trait anxiety that could be the culprit;

Fear of failure.

Individuals who experience fear of failure are more afraid of losing (or getting something wrong) than feeling as though they are able to succeed to begin with. Athletes who suffer from it often work harder than others because they don’t want to lose. Or, they may avoid competition because they feel too afraid that they will lose.

Actions such as these can impair a writers perspective of their abilities, and can inhibit them from reaching their potential.

Recent research involving fencers who experience high fear of failure  show they are more likely to experience high cognitive anxiety. That is, those who see competition as a threat (rather than an opportunity) because they might lose, are at an increased risk of suffering from cognitive anxiety.

These nervous feelings are common, but can be potentially harmful , especially in competitive situations.

And if the writers market is anything, it is certainly competitive.

If you find that fear of failure or state anxiety is a problem, here are a few simple steps you can take to overcome it:

• Keep a journal: Getting the thoughts out of your head can make room for focusing on your writing.

• Talk to someone you trust who is a good listener.

• Practice deep breathing techniques.

For more serious inquiries, I urge you to seek the help of a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist.


  1. Very interesting Gwen. Fear of failure is something that I think can strike anyone in any 'career'. Everyone has anxiety, but I suppose it's whether you allow it to control you that makes the difference.

    I choose not to do that. It's 'when' not 'if' and they're damn crazy not to like my manuscript.

  2. Well, I've had my share of self-doubt moments, that's for sure. I also find it helpful to walk away from a piece and when I come back to it if it still sounds okay or sometimes even great then I feel much better about it. Deep breathing is definitely helpful. Thanks for the information.